Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 May 2013

Playing Chess with Putin, Syria and Iran

Russia’s Interests in Syria and Iran
Russia’s Interests in Assad
The Winds of Change
What should we do?
Coda: A Short Story of Baba Ghannouj


The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Russia will not sell advanced S-300 air-defense missile systems to Assad. At least Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says Russia won’t. This essay analyzes what, if anything, Russia would have to gain from such a sale and what our response should be if it occurs.

To answer the first question—of Russia’s interests—we first have to ask why Russia supports Assad in the first place. The most likely answer is inertia and little more.

Russia’s Interests in Syria and Iran

For some time, Syria has been Russia’s client state. It buys Russian arms, receives Russian military folk, and generally is friendly to Russia. Iran is Syria’s patron, and Russia has a similar relationship with Iran. So another reason for Russia supporting Syria is its longtime support for Iran.

It’s not easy to understand why Russia is interested in either Iran or Syria. The weapons sales may help prop up Russia’s arms industry, and therefore its barely competitive aerospace and high-tech industries. That’s certainly a plus for Russia. But Russia can make far more money far more quickly selling its oil and gas to the West or China. And presumably Russia has other arms and energy buyers throughout the former Soviet states and developing world.

In any event, it’s hard to see where Syria gets the money to buy all that military hardware. It has no oil. Its chief exports are terrorism and military-political control of Lebanon. Sales of dates and lamb hardly support the purchase of big-ticket weapons.

So it seems as if Russia and Iran prop up Syria with money as well as arms. If that’s so, Syria is much like Castro’s Cuba during the height of the Cold War: a “strategic partner” that doubles as a world-class troublemaker and requires massive subsidies. Syria is hardly a commercial prize, whether as client state or customer. Maybe a new government would be both more tractable and more profitable for Russia.

A second reason Russia is patronizing Syria might be local geopolitics. Russia has been fighting Islamic peoples on, near and inside its southern borders for about two centuries. It has suffered two devastating terrorist attacks in recent years, the Beslan massacre of 300 children and the near-massacre (stopped by Russian sleep gas) at the Nord-Ost theater in Moscow. Both attacks were attributed to militant Chechens, who are mostly Sunni.

So Russia may be patronizing Syria as a largely secular Muslim state unlikely to propagate Islamic extremism. The problem with that theory is Assad himself. A brutal and crude dictator like him tends to spawn Islamic extremism whenever he is no longer able to suppress it with state terror. Saddam was an instructive example.

Different considerations apply to Iran. While Iran is also a state sponsor of terrorism, it is strongly Shiite, and the terrorism it sponsors is directed almost entirely at Israel and us. So Russia likely sees Iran as a potential buffer—and perhaps even an ally—in fighting Sunni terrorism on Russia’s southern border. Iran is, after all, also a target of Sunni/Al Qaeda terrorism. Russia may simply have concluded that the enemy of its enemy is a friend.

Russia’s Interests in Assad

The situation in Syria is even more confused. Assad and his coterie are Alewites—members of a tiny minority that is nominally Shiite. But the vast majority of Syrians are Sunni. These facts explain both why Iran is so eager for Assad to prevail (so that Syria will continue to serve as a buffer against other Sunni regimes), and part of what motivates the mostly Sunni Syrian rebels. It also explains, in part, why the rebels welcome and harbor Al Qaeda in their struggle. Al Qaeda is exclusively and virulently Sunni.

So both Russia’s and Iran’s sponsorships of Assad’s brutality arise from outmoded Metternichian thinking, in two ways. First, both nations want buffer states against danger, no matter how weak, disorganized or even chaotic those states may be, and no matter how shaky their future. Here Russia should entertain serious second thoughts: how effective was Stalin’s devastation of Poland and the Ukraine in protecting Soviet Russia against Hitler? The goal for both us and Russia is not any particular government in Syria, but a viable, peaceful state that does not export terror.

Second, both Russia and Iran apparently adhere to the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Both Russia and Iran are no friends of Sunnis, let along Sunni terrorists.

The same facts also help explain why Russia supports Assad so strongly. If he loses and goes (whether on a plane or in a box), Syria may turn sharply Sunni and become a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadis. That wouldn’t be good for Russia, for us, for Israel, or for the rest of the Middle East. But neighboring Sunni states might support the change out of simple naiveté or neglect.

So Russia’s interest in propping up Assad is hardly a vital national interest and hardly clear. At best, it’s a confused, ambiguous and costly policy, based on Metternichian and medieval thinking. Yet at the moment, supporting Assad may be the best of several bad options for Russia. It also has the weak virtue of continuity: “staying the course” is a phrase with which we Yanks ought to be familiar.

The Winds of Change

But change is coming to the region, willy nilly. It’s hard to see how Assad can maintain a viable state for the long term by killing a large fraction of his people and displacing most of the rest. The atrocities he has perpetrated already have likely passed a point of no return, in which the vast majority of Syria’s people will never forget them, or forgive him, wherever they may be living now.

Sunnis in general, and Al Qeada in particular, have long memories. They never give up. The Russians ought to know that from their own failed adventure in Afghanistan and their two-century-long struggle with Islamic regimes on their borders.

Yet there are two important differences between Afghanistan and Syria. First, we’ve learned our own lessons about the fickleness of jihadis, so we will not be giving them Stingers in Syria. We don’t want those weapons used to terrorize Israel or Western airports. Second, the Russians have not committed their own forces in Syria, except perhaps clandestine ground advisors. So Russian pilots will not die if Syrian rebels down Assad’s planes, or if we do.

So how strong is Russia’s motivation to give Assad S-300s? Not very. Assad has been reckless, stupid and bloodthirsty. He may have left himself no way out but death, surrender, or a long and bloody Pyrrhic victory that leaves his once-stable country a basket case for generations. Already, the most capable and richest Syrians have fled. The Russians are smart enough to know this and therefore probably smart enough not to tempt further counterproductive slaughter by giving Assad potent air defenses.

In the medium term, Iran is also a wild card. Although Iranians still hate us (and with good reason), they know much about the outside world and yearn to be part of it. Iran’s most likely new patron is China, which needs its oil. Russia and Iran are competitors in oil sales, and China will likely jump at business with Iran as soon as sanctions are lifted. Being farther away from Iran than Russia, China will have a less complex relationship with Iran: mostly business, perhaps with some arms sales.

Elections in Iran are also coming up late this summer. It is possible that the Ayatollah will be able, or will try, to steal them again.

But surprises in Iran are more than possible. Except for a few unusual street demonstrations, nothing important in Iran happens in the open, where we can see it. Most everything that matters happens in closed or secret meetings of the elite.

So we will no more be able to predict significant change in Iran than we were able to predict Russia shedding its confining skin of Communism and dissolving the old Soviet Union. Surprises in connection with Iran’s late summer elections could change its foreign policy for the better, albeit probably not toward us. Harsh rhetoric toward Israel undoubtedly will not change, because it is the means by which Iran reduces the motivation for conflict with the more rational of its Sunni neighbors and gets them to help fund its own weapons development.

If push comes to shove, Iran may find some face-saving way to finesse the nuclear issue and end sanctions. As soon as that happens, Russia may no longer be Iran’s only major patron. (Maybe that’s a reason why Russia has never seemed particularly eager to see sanctions end.)

So the future of Russia’s influence in Iran and Syria is uncertain, to say the least. Equally uncertain are Iran’s and Syria’s value to Russia. Yet Russia doesn’t want to alienate Shiite Iran by supporting Sunni rebels in Syria. It certainly doesn’t want Syria to become an Al Qaeda haven, any more than we do. But, like us, it is acutely aware that, as the war and its atrocities drag on, a jihadi victory becomes increasingly likely.

What should we do?

So what should we do? As strange as it may seem, we should work closely with Russia. Except for the arms sales, we have almost the same interests. Neither Russia nor we want Syria to become a failed state or an Al Qaeda haven. We differ from Russia in that we want Assad out now. But we’re not going to convince Russia to help us accomplish that goal unless and until we have a viable and credible alternative that Russia believes will win the civil war at acceptable cost. So far, we don’t.

So at the moment, the best we can do is convince the Russians to let us stop Assad’s air attacks on civilians and cities, or even to help us. Assad’s atrocities are just plain stupid: primitive, savage and counterproductive in every respect. They accomplish nothing but fomenting more Syrian, Sunni and global outrage. The Russians are not stupid; they would prefer a whole and viable, non-terrorist Syrian state—secular, if possible—no matter who ends up on top.

If the Russians refuse to help us, or to allow us to stop the atrocities, then we should follow Colin Powell’s sage advice: the so-called “Pottery Barn” rule. You break it; you own it.

We have direct experience with that rule in Iraq. We suffered 4,488 deaths and spent about a trillion dollars there. Although perhaps not irrevocably, that “investment” is now literally exploding before our eyes. After all we have spent to make Iraq a modern state, it is heartbreaking to see Iran’s future going up in flames before our eyes.

Some things our species learns only by hard experience. It took centuries of ceaseless war for Protestants and Catholics to learn to get along. Maybe the suffering and exhaustion of war is the best teacher, for Christians and Muslims alike. If so, it’s best that war happen before nuclear arms enter the region. (This is also good reason for Israel to sit on the sidelines and be as neutral as Sweden in World War II.)

Russia has far less an investment in Syria that we did (and do) in Iraq. But the principle is the same. An Al Qaeda takeover in Syria, followed inevitably by a Russian exit, would be too close to the Russian experience in Afghanistan for comfort. Russians must consider that, if they support Assad too strongly and he loses, they will be outside Syria looking in.

Russia will always be closer to Syria than we, in geography if nothing else. But Syria has no oil, and Russia has plenty. Assad and his Alewites have likely burned their bridges to everyone else in Syria. So in the end, we and the Russians have much the same interests in Syria: a moderate, preferably secular Sunni government of international realists, who recognize that Al Qeada is as alien to their long-term interests as to ours and Russia’s.

After all that has happened, anything resembling “democracy” in Syria is a pipe dream. But Russia needs to find a new, more viable client government, and we want to see a viable non-terrorist state focused on its own economic development, not spreading terror or destroying Israel. Those goals are not incompatible.

Yet if Russia insists on going it alone and refusing to help or permit our effort to stop Assad’s atrocities, then the Pottery Barn rule should come into play. We are not going to go to war with Russia to pacify Syria or to prevent Syrian casualties. If Russia gives us that stark choice, then we can only disengage and leave Russia to deal alone with Israel, Turkey, Syria’s other neighbors, and whatever monstrosity of a government emerges in Syria after the long civil war.

Some in Russia may seek that end. They may support the old, Metternichian imperial view that the whole region is part of Russia's “sphere of influence.” If so, they would have to bear all the consequences alone, under Powell’s Pottery Barn rule.

But I think the Russians in general, and Putin in particular, are smarter than that. Already, they have been very smart in assisting our effort in Afghanistan, despite the risk of domestic political backlash [search for “extraordinary step”].

Putin was smart to support our effort in Afghanistan because Russians would have gained both ways. If we had pacified the whole country, they would be much more secure. If we had left with our tail between our legs, they would have have had little fear of our future meddling in their back yard.

As it happened, they got a little of both. We learned how hard and dangerous Russia's back yard is, and we are not eager to remain. Yet our drones, ninjas and regular military operations decimated Al Qaeda there, to Russia’s immediate benefit. No doubt close sharing of intelligence helped both countries realize their local objectives.

The Cold War is over. We and Russia have many common objectives, including supressing terrorism and forging a stable, peaceful and productive Middle East. Our cooperation in Aghanistan was to our mutual benefit—how much so we probably won’t know for years. (We are still learning secrets about World War II and the Cold War decades later.)

So we should expect that Russia—albeit slowly and with conditions—might support humanitarian efforts in Syria. It might even support protecting Syria’s civilians and cities from massive, senseless air attacks. Less likely, for the moment, is Russia supporting easing Assad out.

If Russia supports none of the above, our only sane option is to disengage and let Russia learn the wisdom of Colin Powell’s rule. Israel can take care of itself, and in any case a basket case of a state, like Libya today, is not much of a threat to Israel.

Russia’s recent announcement about the S-300s is a sign that the door to cooperation is still open. And Assad’s ambiguous statement yesterday suggests that he does not yet have the S-300s. It’s now time to forget the Cold War and press the “reset” button in earnest. We and Russia have every reason to cooperate and few to balk. If Russia insists on going it alone, it’s going to have to bear the consequences alone, right in its own back yard.

Coda: A Short Story of Baba Ghannouj

Baba Ghannouj (also spelled, more phonetically, “Baba Ghanoush”) is a Middle Eastern dish made of pureed roasted eggplant, lemon juice and spices. It’s not as popular here—yet—as hummus. But it tastes better and has fewer calories. For people like my wife and me, who enjoy eggplant in any form, it’s a delight.

Recently we found ourselves in a hotel in Cleveland. The hotel wasn’t bad. But its restaurant was like many second- and third-rank eateries in Northeast Ohio. Most of the food was unhealthy and tasteless.

When I mentioned Baba Ghannouj to the waitress, her eyes lit up. She said the the new chef was a woman from Syria, and her native dishes were superb. So we tried it. It was the best I had had.

This story is a metaphor for how we got strong. The smartest and most talented people from all over the world came (and still come) here for peace, tranquility, economic opportunity and the chance to practice their various religions without fear.

I didn’t get to meet the chef. So I don’t know when and why her family immigrated. But her mere presence suggests that, at some time, she or her relatives made the difficult decision to leave their native land and seek a better life.

Talented people like this unnamed chef enrich our nation and make us stronger. That’s why we need to fix our immigration laws soon. Every time there’s a cataclysm abroad—like Syria’s civil war—we get a trickle (or an avalanche) of talented immigrants who just want to live free from fear. The only reason we got nuclear weapons first was that all the great European physicists, including Albert Einstein, fled the Nazi scourge and came here.

At the same time, countries like Syria lose their talent. Those who can, leave. Many of those who stay die or are changed forever by the type of meat grinder that Syria has become. The result is a diminished Syria, a more fragile Middle East, and a stronger, more diverse, and happier America.

We should never forget—nor should Syrians or Russians—that Steve Jobs was the biological offspring of a Syrian immigrant. Keep the Syrian meat grinder running, and a psychopath doctor in power, and we just get stronger. Meanwhile, the Syrian buffer state gets weaker and more explosive, just like Poland and the Ukraine about a century ago.



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